Review of Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora
Review of Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora, edited by Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald, published by the independent press, Aurelio Leo
Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora brings together 13 stories from authors across the African continent and throughout the African diaspora. There’s a huge range of tones, settings, genres, and themes in this collection. There’s hard science fiction, fantasy adventure, and absolutely unsettling, truly creepy horror. Some of my favorites are the stories that cross and blur genre boundaries, mixing elements of science fiction, fantasy, and horror into epic, unclassifiable tales of strong emotion and searing imagery. Recurring themes include the legacies of slavery, colonialism, patriarchal oppression, and ongoing economic exploitation. But these are also stories of survival, and in some cases a strange and stirring kind of transcendence.
The opening story, “Trickin’” by Nicole Givens Kurtz, is a dark and atmospheric tale of a god who comes down from the mountains once a year for “tricks or treats.” The mystery of who the god is and what he’s after unwinds slowly in a story that may be science fiction as well as fantasy: a post-apocalyptic world in the aftermath of unspecified tragedy, a decaying urban setting. It’s a good, attention-grabbing opener. The second story, “Red Bati” by Dilman Dila, shifts both mood and setting to a charming and ultimately poignant story about a robot dog attempting to hijack a spaceship. Humor and fun—as well as notes of something darker—can also be found in the fantasy adventures “A Maji Maji Chronicle” by Eugen Bacon (which features time-traveling magicians) and “To Say Nothing of Lost Figurines” by Rafeeat Aliyu (in which a mage teams up with a bureaucratic official to retrieve a lost figurine of power).
Two of my favorite stories were written by the same person, Marian Denise Moore (I definitely want to see more from her). “A Mastery of German” is thought-provoking science fiction that uses the latest in real-world science to ask questions about human memory and inheritance—and where it may all be going. In addition to its grounding in science (and corporate politics), this is also a quietly moving meditation on history, family, and what we’re able to pass down to one another. Some of the best moments of this piece were the quiet moments between a father and daughter, sharing both dinner and history with one another. Marian Denise Moore’s second story in this collection, “Emily,” is really more of a poem, a very short but also deeply moving and powerful piece: an address to a seven-year enslaved girl named Emily, a presumed runaway, whose name and description has been preserved in the newspaper advertisement for her return.
Horror is well-represented in this anthology. In addition to the opening story, “Trickin’,” “Sleep Papa, Sleep” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa and “The Unclean” by Nuzo Onoh can easily be seen as straight-up horror. “Sleep Papa, Sleep” is a wonderfully creepy tale about a man in contemporary Lagos, Nigeria, who has turned to harvesting and selling corpse parts on the black market to make a living. Until one day he inadvertently goes too far, even for a corpse seller. . . I love the way this piece entwines the main character’s memories and feelings for family with his mounting desperation. It’s wonderfully dark, tense, and atmospheric—easily one of my favorites of the collection. And Nuzo Onoh’s “The Unclean,”* also set in Nigeria and one of the longer pieces in the book, absolutely blew me away. As this story opens, we find the narrator in a mysterious forest, terrified and kneeling before her husband’s body. In flashbacks, we slowly learn her tale of abuse, marriage, motherhood, grief, and desperation. This is an absolutely harrowing, phantasmagoric tale of witch doctors, curses, magic, ghosts, and death. The imagery and atmosphere of the piece is remarkable, and I was by turns infuriated and horrified while reading it. The last sentences, however, end on a possible note of hope.
Michael Boatman’s story, “Thresher of Men,”* also has elements of horror, and like “The Unclean,” it also contains difficult, disturbing content with graphic descriptions of abuse. In this tale, the setting is contemporary America, but the story also stretches back to historical sins of the past as well as societal abuses of the present. Much of the story is seen through the unpleasant viewpoint of a bigoted white police officer, Lester Lee. It’s through Lee that we meet and learn some of the back story of Edie Frazier, a woman who was once Lee’s victim. It’s Edie Frazier who becomes the catalyst for a sweeping revenge—and not just on Lester Lee. This is a story that builds in power, and ends in catharsis.
The last group of stories I want to discuss are genre-bending pieces that mix elements of fantasy and science fiction, and often horror as well. “Clanfall: Death of Kings,” by Odida Nyabundi, takes place in a world of warring clans with high-tech armor and tech-modified bodies, a compelling blend of biopunk/(cyberpunk?) with epic fantasy. It’s fast-moving and engaging, and my only complaint is that it reads more like a novel-excerpt than a complete-in-itself story. In fact, I’m pretty certain that it is an excerpt from a novel, and I hope that novel comes out soon, for I would love to read more about the fascinating world that Nyabundi has created. “Convergence in Chorus Architecture,” by Dare Segun Falowo, is the story of the survival of a village. It’s a vivid, fantastical, and surreal tale of orisha, giantesses and other creatures of folklore, and a starship that roams the universe gathering people from different planets. It’s strange and dreamlike, and utterly compelling. “The Satellite Charmer,” by Mame Bougouma Diene, is similarly surreal and dreamlike, although it seems more rooted in our world’s reality—at least at first. In a future Africa, rival Chinese companies compete to exploit the African continent for their mining operations, using satellite beams to strip the earth of valuable elements. Ibrahima knows the danger and damage that the satellite beams cause, and yet he remains fascinated by the beam that operates near his home, “by the beam of blood red violence crashing from the sky, grinding into the soil with the force of a finger crushing an ant.” The story follows Ibrahima through his youth, his innocent days playing in a band and falling in love; his adulthood as he moves to a large city and works to support his family; his disenchantment with life, his continual longing to be near the satellite beam. Tragedy and despair ensues, and the story lifts from reality-based science fiction into something utterly fantastical and surreal. In the end, it’s a strange and beautiful story of transformation (along with a good dose of body horror), and one of the strongest stories of this collection. Finally, “Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon,” by Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald, is the fierce story of a village’s survival in a world ravaged by the fallout of nuclear war. Ife-Iyoku is an isolated African village, surrounded on all sides by land poisoned by radiation. But the people of Ife-Iyoku have adapted; the god Obatala has given them new powers to survive in the world, powers that evolve and grow stronger when their fellows are killed. This is the story of what happens when outsiders discover Ife-Iyoku, and the village comes under attack. . . and it’s also the story of Imade, a fierce young woman who refuses to accept the patriarchal order of her village, and the role that has been assigned to her. What I love about this story is how uncompromising it is; I thought at one point that it would turn out one way, but it subverted my expectations. Imade refuses to ever give in; for her, survival on anything less than her own terms will never be enough. Like several of the other stories in this collection, this is a tale of transformation and even apotheosis.
In all, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora is a strong collection, which brings together a range of fascinating voices, styles and themes. Many of these stories introduced me to folklore and mythologies I had not known before, and provided glimpses into cultures and histories I knew little of. The editors have said on social media that Dominion is the first in a planned series, and that a Dominion 2 is in the works. This is good news indeed, and I look forward to forthcoming books in this series; the editors are doing important work in the world.
*Content warnings: Note that a number of stories contain dark and disturbing content. Of these, I would note that Nuzo Onoh’s “The Unclean” (a powerful story which was one of the standouts for me) contains particularly graphic descriptions of assault, including scenes of sexual assault (with body horror as a component of these assaults).
Michael Boatman’s story, “Thresher of Men,” also has a depiction of sexual assault and also contains transphobic language (spoken by an unsympathetic character).